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April 5, 2018

Our Professional Strengths and Their Long, Dark Shadows

By Vega Subramaniam

I spend a lot of my waking hours thinking about, if not in actual conversation with people about, career transitions. And when I say ‘career transitions,’ I mean in a big way. Breaking from the well-trodden course and radically recalibrating. As in, take someone with a bit of a professional history, but who’s not crazy about what they’re doing for a living, and who can’t quite figure out what to do next.

Simple answer? Figure out what they’re good at, which will naturally lead to what they’re meant to do, right? Right. So, if that person had an opportunity to (shameless plug alert) spend quality time articulating their strengths, skills, and talents, and tell meaningful stories that demonstrate those strengths, skills, and talents—that would be brilliant, right? Done and dusted.

Well, maybe.

It’s funny. You would think that discovering your strengths, skills, and talents would be an unadulteratedly positive experience.

What does it mean, then, if once talents having been unearthed, ease and confidence still don’t show up? To realize how fraught that exercise is?

Here are some of the things I’ve seen show up:

  • Anyone can do that. There’s nothing special about that. That’s all I have, and there’s nothing special about it. So I guess I’ve got nothing…just as I suspected.
  • My skills are what’s valued in the existing hetero-patriarchal-capitalist society that stands for everything I oppose. They’re tainted, corrupt, morally bankrupt, and I have no desire to own them. They symbolize everything I oppose on principle and ethics.
  • The strengths I have are riddled with the pain I experienced while developing them. I can’t articulate them without invoking that pain.
  • My strengths are gendered in ways that are devalued in our hetero-patriarchal-capitalist society. Do I really want to claim them, when they’ll only pigeon-hole me and reinforce the patriarchy? Not to mention require me to do an immense amount of invisibilized labor that doesn’t get remunerated, just because they are, in fact, my Dependable Strengths? How do I find work that nourishes me by calling upon my natural strengths, while at the same time challenge the patriarchy?
  • I know what my strengths are, but I can’t use them because I continuously get punished for it (“boys don’t dance!” “stop with the ideas, we need to come to a decision!” “it’s too long and complicated! Make it shorter and meet the deadline!”).
  • [More, infinitely more…]

I’ll confess that my personal bugaboo was Bullet #1, “anyone can do that.”

Mala can attest to the years when I would moan that I have no marketable skills. Everyone else has marketable skills. I got nuthin. And of course Mala being Mala, instead of saying, “oh for the love of god, get over yourself, Vega!”, which let’s be honest is what she was thinking, would patiently enumerate the skills she claimed I did have: I make people feel welcome; I’m a good listener; I bring out the best in people; I make sure all voices are heard, and then summarize with precision; I’m good at compiling, organizing, and presenting complex information…yeah, whatever. Anyone can do that. Those aren’t skills, they’re just the way everyone is. You’ve just proven my point, thanks for nothing, Mala.

It was hard to hear, is what I’m saying, and hard to believe, and hard to accept.

Honestly, unearthing our talents, and not just that but having an uncomplicated relationship with them, is fraught. So where to go with that?

How do I go from “I suck!” to “there are some things I’m genuinely not bad at, and while they’re embedded in my not-always-positive life experiences and our cultures and systems, they’re what I have and I’m going to find opportunities that allow them, and by extension me, to flourish”?

First, what’s the underlying block?

For me, it was thinking that I alone among mortals had no skills to speak of. It took an intentional effort to acknowledge that if every single other human being on this planet had at least one marketable skill, then I must, too; and then decide that I’m going to figure it out for myself.

I was a little sick of not knowing what I was good at, and consequently getting into the wrong line of work over and over again. So I dug into my past, found stories of times I accomplished things that were meaningful to me, and mined them for underlying strengths.

Your thoughts? What is it that’s blocking you from identifying, or thriving in, your strengths and talents?

What do others praise you for?

To fortify that exploration, many people suggest finding out what positive things important others say about you behind your back when you’re not there.

I actively sought validation from others—not just Mala (bless her heart), but others who knew me, from all walks of life, professional and otherwise. Like, for example, I literally sent emails to, I don’t remember, a dozen people? asking them what they thought I was good at. This was a lesson in humility and courage and Y’ALL SHOULD DO IT IF YOU HAVEN’T ALREADY, IT’S AMAZING.

Here’s another way to do it. And another. What are you waiting for?

Do you have unshakable faith, based on your own observations, of your strengths?

I spent solid time looking around and observing that, no, in fact everyone can’t do “that.” Everyone can’t effectively supervise employees; everyone can’t maneuver through conflict with aplomb; everyone can’t provide powerful experiences that provoke deep self-reflection and intentional personal growth. So let me put aside my ego (which, ultimately, is what self-doubt is, as my friend Janeen wisely points out), so that I can get on with the business of offering what skills I do have to the world, untarnished by the nay-saying voices in my head.

Are you able to find, and embrace, what makes you special?

Are you rewarded for your strengths at work?

It sure was frustrating when I’d bring my warm, relationship-oriented self to my projects, only to have my boss(es) tell me that’s a waste of time; that we should be focused on efficiency and speed. Like, literally scold me for taking the time to write a “long” (read: warm) email to a partner organization, for example, or “wasting time” meeting with (read: trying to build a non-exploitative relationship with) a direct report over coffee.

If you’re currently employed, do you get to (a) use your strengths, and (b) get positive feedback for doing so? If so, great! You might well be doing what you should be doing. If not, is it time to consider alternatives? (Read: run!)

And last, how do you still the voices of the Dark Side?

What to do with the pain, shame, grief associated with, and perhaps stopping you from, fully embracing your Dependable Strengths®?

Well, I have no idea. You’re on your own here, friend. Haha, just kidding (not really). It’s taken me years, and I still trip on this one. I keep being sucked back into the “only ‘hard’ skills count” storyline and keep trying to find the real skill beneath, say, “good listener.” Ugh ugh ugh, the number our culture plays on us.

And I still wish I had a thing, a word I could say, like carpenter, or pediatrician, or architect. One word, and everyone knows what you’re good at and why to hire you. That way, I won’t be the first person kicked off the island. I want a word. [Sigh.]

But where I land, over and over again, is: we’re naturally drawn to and spectacularly good at certain kinds of activities; we just honestly can’t help ourselves from doing them, and we’ve been good at them forever. We already know from experience that not owning them is…well, it’s not possible, for one thing. It makes us small, stifled, miserable.

So how can we can define, or redefine, our strengths as belonging to us? And redefine our self-protection as resilience?

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